Political Science Machiavelli’s Political Thought
Vickie B. Sullivan, Michelle T. Clarke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0176


Niccolò Machiavelli (b. 1469–d. 1527) stands as one of the most famous and influential thinkers of the Western political tradition. His writings have inspired, guided, outraged, and perplexed intellectuals and politicians alike for more than half a millennium, and even in the 21st century they remain a major subject of academic controversy. Machiavelli is best known for The Prince, a slim volume that purports to teach aspiring princes how to acquire and maintain power. Although nominally a contribution to the “mirror-for-princes” genre, its subversive nature was obvious even to its earliest readers, and Machiavelli’s name has since become synonymous with the cunning, duplicity, treachery, and ruthlessness it depicts. His other major political works include the Discourses on Livy, a much longer study of Roman republicanism, the Florentine Histories, an examination of his own city’s troubled republican past, and Art of War, a dialogue that features contemporary personages, including the mercenary captain Fabrizio Colonna. Whether and how Machiavelli intended these books to form a coherent political philosophy is a matter of considerable debate; nevertheless, they all reflect Machiavelli’s attentiveness to the lessons taught by political history, known to him through classical sources such as Livy, Tacitus, and Polybius and through his own experiences as a chancellor of the Florentine Republic. The authors wish to thank Erica Buonanno and Alexander Trubowitz for their research assistance on this project.

General Overviews

The following works are useful entry points for a more detailed study of Machiavelli. Nederman 2019 features an informative and judicious treatment of scholarly controversies. Skinner 2000 and Strauss 1987 are particularly noteworthy as brief treatments by preeminent scholars of Machiavelli, who have given rise to their own schools of interpretation. McCormick 2014 also offers an overview that emphasizes his own distinctive interpretation of Machiavelli as a democrat (see The People). Nederman 2009 and Del Lucchese 2015 focus on salient themes in Machiavelli’s life and work.

  • Del Lucchese, Filippo. The Political Philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

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    An extended treatment of the major philosophical themes developed in The Prince, Discourses on Livy, Florentine Histories, and Art of War.

  • McCormick, John P. “Machiavelli, Niccolò (1469–1527).” In The Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Edited by Michael T. Gibbons, 2219–2224. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

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    Emphasizes Machiavelli’s class analysis. Available online by subscription.

  • Nederman, Cary J. Machiavelli: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

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    Organized around a series of dichotomies that Machiavelli struggled with throughout his life.

  • Nederman, Cary J. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

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    A helpful and balanced starting place for understanding Machiavelli’s thought and the scholarly controversies it has occasioned.

  • Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Focuses on Machiavelli’s ambivalent relationship with the “neo-classical form of humanist political thought” (p. ix). Originally published in 1981 as part of the Past Masters series.

  • Strauss, Leo. “Niccolò Machiavelli.” In History of Political Philosophy. 3d ed. Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, 296–317. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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    Machiavelli depicted as consciously rejecting both Christianity and classical philosophy.

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